„With my faith I can endure anything“

Sudan‘s tiny Christian flock is being swelled by refugees from Eritrea 

Sudan – we are speaking of the northern republic, officially the Republic of Sudan, which since 2011 has been separate from the breakaway country of South Sudan – is no longer a Christian country. In fact 90% of the population today are Muslims. In the last few years, however, the tiny Christian flock in the country has been swelled – albeit involuntarily – by tens of thousands of Eritreans, among whom are many Christians and many Catholics. They are seeking refuge here since they can no longer bear living in their own home country. „The regime in Eritrea is forcing people to serve for years, and sometimes even decades, in the army under compulsory military service. During this time they are paid practically nothing and are utterly at the mercy of the regime. It is a situation fewer and fewer people are willing to accept“, explains one of the catholic volunteers who cares for the Eritrean refugees in the capital Khartoum. Let us call him Joseph, since we cannot reveal his actual name. Usually, this western and northern neighbour is intended merely as the first stop on a route that it is hoped will end in Europe, and which will cost thousands of euros in payments to the people smugglers. From Sudan the journey to Libya costs around 1500 Euros, and from there to Italy the same again. But many of the refugees have no money to make the trip and so they end up stuck in Sudan. Often they have to spend years there before they can move on further. „Any thought of a return to Eritrea is unthinkable. There they will only face imprisonment or worse“, explains Joseph, as he shows us round a school on the edge of Khartoum. „But meanwhile, life must go on. For the children especially, the years they spend here must not be wasted ones. In fact many were actually born here in the country.“

This is just one reason why the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is supporting the school, which is attended by some 1200 children, up to Year 8. „The people want their children to have a solid education, and they also want them to be brought up and instructed in the Christian faith. In this way the children will be at less risk of losing their Christian roots and at the same time they will have the possibility of a future“, explains Christine du Coudray-Wiehe, the head of ACN‘s project section that deals with Sudan. „The Eritrean refugees in Sudan have a very difficult time of it. They have fled a totalitarian regime in their own home country, and ended up living in an Islamist regime. We want to stand by them and help them by supporting their children and helping them to grow in the Catholic faith.“

ACN is helping to pay the cost of schoolbooks and teachers‘ salaries, and also the cost of food for the pupils themselves. More often than not their families have very little money to help pay for their children‘s schooling. Employers give priority to the Sudanese, so most of the Eritreans struggle to make ends meet in the black economy. They save up every possible penny in the hope of being able to pay for the journey to Europe or some other Western nation. For not one of them wants to stay on in Sudan. „Our people are so afraid of the police“, Joseph adds. „We Christians are helpless and at their mercy.“ And it is true that many of the refugees again and again fall victim to oppression by the police. „Sometimes the police imprison our people and will only let them free on payment of a ransom.“ And he tells us how, when this happens, the people willingly put together what little money they have in order to help their brothers and sisters in need. „Our people have a strong faith. It gives them the strength to endure everything that happens here.“

Undoubtedly, these refugee families have to endure a great deal. Close to the Eritrean church in one of the poorest suburbs of the city, we visit the family of Isaias, who live in one room in a corrugated steel roofed hut. Here, in this one room, the entire life of this family of five takes place. „Here is where we sleep, here we cook, here we eat, here is where our children play“, the father of the family explains. We are offered lemonade and sweets, as with typical generosity they share what little they have. The father of this family served for years in the Eritrean army before deciding a few years ago to leave his homeland, because he could see no hope either for himself or for his children. „We would like to go to Canada“, he explains. Asked if he is not afraid of travelling to this distant foreign land, he responds energetically, „With my faith and my Church I am not afraid of anything!“

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Founded in 1947 as a Catholic aid organization for war refugees and recognized as a papal foundation since 2011, ACN is dedicated to the service of Christians around the world, through information, prayer and action, wherever they are persecuted or oppressed or suffering material need. ACN supports every year an average of 6000 projects in close to 150 countries, thanks to private donations, as the foundation receives no public funding.